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Drone Race to a Known Future: Why Military Dreams Fail – and Why It Doesn’t Matter

For drone freaks (and these days Washington seems full of them)

For drone freaks (and these days Washington seems full of them), here’s the
good news: Drones are hot! Not long ago — 2006 to be exact — the Air Force
could barely get a few armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air at once;
now, the number is 38; by 2011, it will reputedly be 50, and beyond that, in
every sense, the sky’s the limit.

Better yet, for the latest generation of armed surveillance drones — the ones
with the chill-you-to-your-bones sci-fi names of Predators and Reapers (as in
Grim) — whole new surveillance capabilities will soon be available. Their newest
video system, due to be deployed next year, has been dubbed Gorgon Stare after
the creature in Greek mythology whose gaze turned its victims to stone. According
to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, Gorgon Stare will
offer a “pilot” back in good ol’ Langley, VA, headquarters of the
CIA, the ability to “stare” via 12 video feeds (where only one now
exists) at a 1.5 mile square area, and then, with Hellfire missiles and bombs,
assumedly turn any part of it into rubble. Within the year, that viewing capacity
is expected to double to three square miles.

What we’re talking about here is the gaze of the gods, updated in corporate
labs for the modern American war-fighter — a gaze that can be focused on whatever
runs, walks, crawls, or creeps just about anywhere on the planet 24/7, with
an instant ability to blow it away. And what’s true of video capacity will be
no less true of the next generation of drone sensors — and, of course, of drone
like that “5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French
bread” meant in some near-robotic future to replace the present 100-pound
Hellfire missile, possibly on the Avenger or Predator C, the next generation
drone under development at General
Atomics Aeronautical Systems
. Everything, in fact, will be almost
infinitely upgradeable, since we’re still in the robotics equivalent of the
age of the “horseless carriage,” as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution
assures us. (Just hold your hats, for instance, when the first nano-drones make it onto the scene! They will, according to Jane Mayer of the New
, be able to “fly after their prey like a killer bee through
an open window.”)

And here’s another flash from the drone development front: the Navy wants in.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, reports Jason Paur of Wired’s
Danger Room blog, is looking for “a robotic attack aircraft that can land
and take off from a carrier.” Fortunately, according to Paur, the X-47B,
which theoretically should be able to do just that, is to make its first test
flight before year’s end. It could be checking out those carrier decks by 2011,
and fully operational by 2025.

Not only that, but drones are leaving the air for the high seas where they
are called unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). In fact, Israel — along with the
U.S. leading the way on drones — will reportedly soon
launch the first of its USVs off the
coast of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The U.S. can’t be far behind and it seems that, like their
airborne cousins, these ships, too, will be weaponized.

Taking the Measure of a Slam-Dunk Weapons System

Robot war. It just couldn’t be cooler, could it? Especially if the only blood
you spill is the other guy’s, since our “pilots” are flying those
planes from thousands of miles away. Soon, it seems, the world will be a drone
fest. In his first nine months, President Obama has authorized more drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal
borderlands than the Bush administration did in its last three years in office
and is now considering upping their use in areas of rural Afghanistan where
U.S. troops will be scarce.

In Washington, drones are even considered the “de-escalatory” option for
the Afghan War by some critics, while CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose agency
runs our drone war in Pakistan, has hailed them as “the only game in
town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”
Among the few people who don’t adore them here are hard-core
who don’t want an armada of robot planes standing in
the way of sending in oodles more troops. The vice president, however, is a
drone-atic. He loves ’em to death and reportedly wants to up their missions,
especially in Pakistan, rather than go the oodles route.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates jumped onto the drone bandwagon early. He has long been pressing the
Air Force to invest ever less in expensive manned aircraft — he’s called the
, still in development, the last manned fighter aircraft — and
ever more in the robotic kind. After all, they’re so lean, mean, and high-tech
sexy — for Newsweek, they fall into the category of “weapons
— that what’s not to like?

Okay, maybe there’s
the odd scrooge around like Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial
executions, who recently complained to the press that
the U.S. program might involve war crimes under international law: “We
need the United States to be more up front and say, ‘OK, we’re willing to discuss
some aspects of this program,’ otherwise you have the really problematic bottom
line that the CIA is running a program that is killing significant numbers of
people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international

But as Christmas approaches, somebody’s always going to say, “Bah, humbug!”
And let’s face it, just about everyone who matters to the mainstream media swears
that the drones are just so much more “precise” in their “extrajudicial
executions” than traditional air methods, which can be
so messy. Better yet, when nothing in Afghanistan or Pakistan seems to be working
out, the drones are actually doing the job. They’re reportedly knocking off
the bad guys right and left. At least 13 senior al-Qaeda leaders and one senior
Taliban leader (aka “high-value targets”) have
been killed by the drones, according to the Long War Journal,
and many more foot soldiers have been taken out as well.

And they’re not just the obvious slam-dunk weapons system for our present problems
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’re potentially the royal path to the future
when it comes to war-fighting, which is surely something else to be excited

The Wonder Weapons Succeed — at Home

So why am I not excited — other than the fact that the drones are also killing
civilians in disputed but significant numbers in the
Pakistani tribal borderlands, creating enemies and animosity wherever they strike,
and turning us into a nation of 24/7 assassins beyond the law or accountability
of any sort? Thought of another way, the drones put wings on the original Bush-era
Guantanamo principle — that Americans have the inalienable right to act as
global judge, jury, and executioner, and in doing so are beyond the reach of
any court or law.

And here’s another factor that dulls my excitement just a tad — if the history
of air warfare has shown one thing, it’s this: it never breaks populations.
Rather, it only increases their sense of unity, as in London during the Blitz
under Winston Churchill, in Germany under Adolf Hitler, Imperial Japan under
Emperor Hirohito, North Korea under Kim Il Sung, North Vietnam under Ho Chi
Minh, and of course (though we never put ourselves in such company, being the
exceptions to all history), the United States after 9/11 under George W. Bush.
Why should the peoples of rural Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands be
any different?

Oh, and there’s just one more reason that comes to mind: it so happens that
I can see the future when it comes to drones, and it’s dismal. I’m no prophet
— it’s only that I’ve already lived through so much of that future. In fact,
we all have.

Militarily speaking, we might as well be in the film Groundhog Day in which
Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell are forced to live out the same 24 hours again
and again — with all the grimness of that idea and none of the charm of those
actors. In my lifetime, I’ve repeatedly seen advanced weapons systems or mind-boggling
technologies of war hailed as near-utopian paths to victory and future peace
(just as the atomic bomb was soon after my birth). In the Vietnam War, the glories
of “the electronic battlefield” were limned as an antidote to brute
and ineffective American air power. That high-tech, advanced battlefield of
invisible sensors was to bring an end to the impunity of guerrillas and infiltrating
enemy armies. No longer capable of going anywhere undetected, they would have
nowhere to hide.

In the 1980s, it was President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative,
quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics, a label that he accepted
with amusement. (“If you will pardon my stealing a film line — the Force
is with us,” he said in his usual genial way.) His dream, as he told the American people, was to create
an “impermeable” anti-missile shield over the United States — “like
a roof protects a family from rain” — that would end the possibility of
nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and so create peace in our time (or, if
you were of a more cynical turn of mind, the possibility of a freebie nuclear
assault on the Soviets).

In the Gulf War, “smart bombs” and smart missiles were praised as
the military saviors of the moment. They were to give war the kind of precision
that would lower civilian deaths to the vanishing point and, as the neocons
of the Bush administration would claim in the next decade, free the U.S. military
to “decapitate” any regime we loathed. All this would be possible
without so much as touching the civilian population (which would, of course,
then welcome us as liberators). And later, there was “netcentric warfare,” that
Rumsfeldian high-tech favorite. Its promise was that advanced information-sharing
technology would turn a Military Lite into an uplinked force so savvy about
changing battlefield realities and so crushing that a mere demo or two would
cow any “rogue” nation or insurgency into submission.

Of course, you know the results of this sort of magical thinking about wonder
weapons (or technologies) and their properties just as well as I do. The atomic
bomb ended nothing, but led to an almost half-century-long nuclear superpower
standoff/nightmare, to nuclear proliferation, and so to the possibility that,
someday, even terrorists might possess such weapons. The electronic battlefield
was incapable of staving off defeat in Vietnam. That impermeable anti-missile
shield never came even faintly close to making it into our skies. Those “smart
bombs” of the Gulf War proved remarkably dumb, while the 50 “decapitation” strikes the
Bush administration launched against Saddam Hussein’s regime on the first day
of the 2003 invasion of Iraq took out not a single Iraqi leader, but “dozens”
of civilians. And the history of the netcentric military in Iraq is well known.
Its “success” sent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld into retirement and

In the same way, robot drones as assassination weapons will prove to be just
another weapons system rather than a panacea for American warriors. To date,
in fact, there is at least as much evidence in Pakistan and Afghanistan that
the drones are helping to spread war as that they are staunching it.

Yet, the above summary is, at best, only half the story. None of these wonder
weapons or technologies succeeded in their moment, or as advertised, but that
fact stopped none of them from embedding themselves in our American world. From
the atomic bomb came a whole nuclear landscape that included the Strategic Air
Command, weapons labs, production plants, missile silos, corporate interests,
and an enormous world-destroying arsenal (as well as proliferating versions
of the same, large and small, across the planet). Nor did the electronic battlefield
go away. Quite the opposite — it came home and entered our everyday world in
the form of sensors, cameras, surveillance equipment and the like, now implanted
from our borders to our cities.

True, Reagan’s impermeable shield was the purest of nuclear fantasies, but
the “high frontiersmen” gathered and, taking a sizeable bite of the
military budget, went on a decades-long binge of way-out research, space warfare plans and commands, and
boondoggles of all sorts, including the staggeringly expensive, still not operational anti-missile system
that the Bush and now Obama administrations have struggled to emplace somewhere in Europe. Similarly,
ever newer generations of smart bombs and ever brighter missiles have been,
and are being, developed ad infinitum.

Rarely do wonder weapons or wonder technologies disappoint enough to disappear.
Each of these is, in fact, now surrounded by its own mini-version of the military-industrial
complex, with its own set of corporate players, special lobbyists in Washington,
specific interests, and congressional boosters. Each has installed a typical
revolving door that the relevant Pentagon officials and officers can spin through
once their military careers are in order. This is no less true for that wonder
weapon of our moment, the robot drone.

fact, you can already see the military-industrial-drone-robotics complex in
formation. Take just one figure, Tony Tether, who for seven years was the head
of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which did its share
of advanced robotics research. When he left the Pentagon in September, it was,
according to Noah Shachtman, who runs
Wired’s Danger Room blog, to join “an advisory panel
of Scientific Systems Company, Inc., which works on robotics projects for the
Pentagon. In June, he joined the board of Aurora Flight Sciences, Inc., developers
of military unmanned aircraft.” He has also become “a part-time technical
consultant and ‘strategic advisor’ for the influencers at The Livingston Group”
which represents some large defense contractors like Northrup Grumman and Raytheon.

The drone industry, too, already has its own congressional representatives.
Republican Congressman and former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan
Hunter, for instance, is a major drone booster. In April 2009, he insisted that “we must also press
forward with the development of the next generation of UAVs, including the Predator
C. During my service in the Marine Corps, I engaged targets with the Predator
A and B Series, and I recognize the advantages offered by Predator C.”
In 2008, General Atomics, whose “affiliate”
makes the Predator drone, gave $6,000 to Hunter’s election campaign
committee, making it his 13th largest contributor. That company was also the
number two contributor to his Peace Through
Strength political action committee.

In the American Grain

This, then, is the future that you can see just as well as I can. When the
Obama administration decides to up the ante on drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan,
as it’s soon likely to do, it will be ensuring not the end of al-Qaeda or the
Taliban, but the long life of robot war within our ever more militarized society.
And by the time this set of robotic dreams fails to pan out, it won’t matter.
Yet another mini-sector of the military-industrial complex will be etched into
the American grain.

Whatever the short-term gains from introducing drone warfare in these last
years, we are now locked into the 24/7 assassination trade — with our own set
of non-suicide bombers on the job into eternity. This may pass for sanity in
Washington, but it’s surely helping to pave the road to hell.

Haven’t any of these folks ever seen a sci-fi film? Are none of them Terminator
? Are they sure they want to open the way to unlimited robot war,
keeping in mind that, if this is the latest game in town, it won’t remain mainly
an American one for long. And just wait until the first Iranian drone takes
out the first Baluchi guerrilla supported by American funds somewhere
in Pakistan. Then let’s see just what we think about the right of any nation
to summarily execute its enemies — and anyone else in the vicinity — by drone.

Is this actually what we Americans want to be known for? And if we let this
happen, and General Atomics is working double or triple shifts to turn out ever
more, ever newer generations of robot warriors, while the nation suffers 10.2%
unemployment, who exactly will think about shutting them down?


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the
Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history
of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also
edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in
the New Age of Empire
(Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the
mad Bush years. To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview with Engelhardt accompanying
this piece, click here.

on Further Reading:
For a fascinating, if underappreciated history
of American dreams about ultimate weapons leading to world peace, don’t miss
Bruce Franklin’s remarkable little book (reissued in 2008 in an updated edition),
War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination.
On drones, the piece to read is Jane Mayer’s recent “The Predator War” in the New

Katherine Tiedemann and Peter Bergen’s “Revenge of the Drones,” a
report from the New America Foundation, has a particularly sensible discussion
of a question that is, at present, impossible to answer (because no reporters
are around): How many civilians have died in drone attacks in the Pakistani
borderlands? Priya Shah’s Nation magazine report, “Attack of the Drones,” is
well worth checking out, too. (“Lord Bingham, a retired senior British
judge, compares hunter-killer drones to cluster bombs and land mines, weapons
that have been deemed too cruel for use… Airstrikes, manned or unmanned, regulated
or not, cannot build a better Afghan future.”) And my earlier drone piece,
might be worth a glance. The website to keep your eye
on for the latest news on drones and other advanced military technology is Noah
Shachtman’s Danger
, much cited above.]

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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